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Hip-Hop Storytellers: The Vignette

Image (partial) found on Burning the Guns

"That story is over, but my rhyme ain't done." Vignettes are important tools in hip-hop's rich and plentiful storytelling tradition.

Hip-hop, as a genre, is known for a great many things. As even the most casual listener is aware, those things are not always positive. There is, however, one skill hip-hop has consistently gotten right over the course of its tenure: storytelling. Rappers are great storytellers and often command dynamic technical prowess to turn their anecdotes into near cinematic gems. Fresh imagery, imaginative points of view, and surprise endings are chief among the tools employed by our best storytellers.

This article outlines the scope of a specific storytelling device that I've dubbed "The Vignette". By "vignette", I'm referring to short and descriptive tales that typically last as long as a single verse. Rappers construct vignettes as fables to illuminate a moral or ethical statement, to give advice, or to indulge flights of fancy. Vignettes generally operate in pairs or in threes, wherein a single rapper approaches as given subject from various angles. Sometimes, the contrasting vignettes are delivered by different rappers, their individual styles accentuating the complexities of their themes.

The "vignette" should be distinguished structurally and stylistically from other storytelling devices; mainly, the straightforward narrative. Songs like Slick Rick's "A Children's Story", MC Lyte's "Poor Georgie", and Ghostface Killah's "Whip Me With a Strap" tell stories in a direct fashion. While the themes of the straightforward narrative are no less significant than those of the vignette, there's a tendency among straightforward narratives to advance a singular viewpoint.

MC Lyte's "Poor Georgie", for instance, chronicled the feelings that Lyte, the narrator, had for Georgie, a handsome heartbreaker she'd met at a club. Across the song's tender verses and a clever Jackson 5 sample mixed into the choruses, the Lyte and Georgie become close, so when Georgie dies in a car accident caused by his drunk driving, Lyte expresses her regrets, "I wish I would've told him how I liked him so much / how he made me feel with the slightest touch." The song's sense of tragedy, along with MC Lyte's grief, supports the moral of the tale that "if you love someone, you should say it often" because "no one is promised tomorrow".

The linear path of the narrative makes it more accessible for sequels. EPMD's "Jane" series detailed the acts of a stalker, Redman's "Supaman Lova" songs followed the rapper's outrageous adventures as a playboy, and Atmosphere's "Millie Fell Off the Fire Escape" (2009) added an intriguing bit of closure to De La Soul's abruptly-ending '90s story of sexual abuse in "Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa". Vignettes, on the other hand, feature two or more verses that act as distinct examples that illustrate a single theme. They aren't given to sequels because they operate in a cyclical or parallel manner.

For this reason, the vignette deserves a spotlight in hip-hop's storytelling tradition. In providing this spotlight, I've identified specific categories of vignettes that are popular among artists, and successfully executed. While such categories aren't meant to be inflexible, they should guide us in understanding this facet of hip-hop's storytelling magic.

Tales of Advocacy

Songs in the "Tales of Advocacy" category feature stories, or describe scenarios, that advocate a position to the listener. In this regard, they are a bit preachy and, notwithstanding the vignette presentation's accommodation of multiple viewpoints, they might also oversimplify and paint the world monochromatically. Typically, advocacy tales will address the listener directly as "you", and place the listener in situations that require decisiveness.

Young MC's "Bust a Move" is a humorous tale that advocates self-confidence and moderate risk taking. Over a snappy guitar loop, Young MC offers a set of scenarios aimed at his male listeners ("This is a jam for all the fellas"). Each time, the mission is to strike up the nerve to talk to a gorgeous woman, to face the prospect of rejection in an effort to "cure your lonely condition". "Go for it," Young MC seems to say. The worst that can happen is a pretty woman says, "No." At least you tried.

Of course, advocacy tales aren't always bundles of joy and laughter. The more serious the subject matter, the more serious the lyricism, to the point that the song can move from concern to protest and anger .

NWA's "F*ck the Police" fits the bill here, with group members Ice Cube, MC Ren, Eazy-E, and Dr. Dre dramatizing the indignities of police brutality and racial profiling through the vivid mock testimony of their individual verses. While it's pretty funny (to me, at least) that the group finds the cops guilty on all counts, dealing with law enforcement on such a combative level is no fun at all. "F*ck the Police" brings to life the unseemly side of the law, perhaps painting with broad strokes, but nevertheless making the point that unbridled authority needs to be checked, if not curtailed.

Admittedly, the song's image of curtailment amounts to retaliation, as the boys in NWA take out their frustrations on the boys in blue. Ice Cube is determined to "swarm / on any motherf*cka in a blue uniform." MC Ren will "smoke 'em now and not next time." Eazy-E asserts, "Without a gun and a badge, what do you got? / A sucker in a uniform waitin' to get shot." The frustration is palpable, but taking these potential solutions seriously is questionable, something more suited to Sam Greenlee's novel The Spook Who Sat By The Door than reality.

There's a similar feel to another Dr. Dre-related tune, "The Day The N*ggaz Took Over". Inspired by the 1992 Los Angeles Riots following the police beating of motorist Rodney King, and then the subsequent acquittal of the offending officers, "The Day The N*ggaz Took Over" goes for a present tense view of the confusion and mayhem of the moment. There's definitely a touch of social reality in the song ("Bloods, Crips on the same squad"), but there's also an awkward sense of glee about the looting that took place during the riots that brilliantly complicates its message ("Got a VCR, in the back of my car"). I say it "brilliantly complicates" because, after all, the big picture of the L.A. Riots is rooted in complexity and conflicting rationales. There are no easy answers.

Big Daddy Kane's "Stop Shammin'" tweaks the serious, issue-oriented paradigm by adding cynicism and derision to the mix. Here, Big Daddy Kane can spot a phony a mile away, a popular theme in all of hip-hop. Over a pounding drum beat, Kane goes hardcore against fakers and frauds who are "more false than dentures", people who perpetrate and pretend to be "real". Kane first makes the case for his own credibility and authenticity, rhyming, "Yeah, I went from rags to riches, but I still rock the saggy britches" and "I don't try to act brand new / eating escargot and using words like rendezvous".

The second verse gets more specific, demanding to know "why you wanna be what you're not / and claim to have things that you know you ain't got". Hair care, skin bleaching, and interracial dating come under fire here, with Kane going for the jugular, "It's quite obvious you don't wanna be a Black man / So what's next? You go and join the Ku Klux Klan?" The verse ends with sounder observations, though, as Kane notes that rich folks are able to donate funds to foundations and charities but don't contribute to schools and hospitals that might uplift communities. You know how this argument goes, and it's impossible to win. Let somebody put up money for a school and then the critique is about location ("Why did Oprah open up a school on another continent?") or curriculum ("Is Thomas Jefferson really worth five pages in the textbook?"). These are difficult, thorny issues, and Kane's well-meaning piece calling out those who fake the funk can come off as caustic, given the gravity of it all.

Along the lines of "Stop Shammin'" is Ice-T's "B*tches 2", an alternate view of the B-word that advocates extending it to gutless men. In the first verse, Ice's homeboy disses him to impress a pretty lady (and fails). In the second verse, the Feds catch a dude named Mitch (how convenient for the end rhymes!) with cocaine and PCP -- and he snitches on his entire posse. In the final verse, a habitual liar and loser takes his aggression out on his wife and joins the police force to take even more aggression out on the unsuspecting public. Interestingly, the song doesn't try to take the sting out of the word "b*tch". In fact, it arguably sets out to sting more people, men as well as women, by casting a wider net with the pejorative.

Other advocacy vignettes aim the sympathy arrow toward the intended target. In Public Enemy's "Burn Hollywood Burn", for example, Ice Cube, Chuck D, and Big Daddy Kane tackled the plight of black actors and actresses in Tinseltown. Granted, this song doesn't fit as a proper story, with identifiable characters and a discernible storyline, but I think its characterization of Hollywood puts it close to our discussion. It's like a documentary with an agenda, set to music."Many intelligent black men seemed / to look uncivilized when on the screen," rhymes Big Daddy Kane.

As far as advocacy goes, the song definitely seeks the listener's disdain for Hollywood stereotypes and limited opportunities for actors and actresses of color. "So let's make our own movies like Spike Lee," Big Daddy Kane suggests. Now, I have to admit it's a little funny, seeing how things turned out, to hear the end of the song when Flava Flav is asked if he'd like to be cast as a "controversial Negro" and he actually says, "You mean somebody like Huey P. Newton or H. Rap Brown, right?" No disrespect to Flava Flav but, really? Huey Newton? And when the role turns out to be that of a "servant" who "shuffles a little bit and sings", Flava's adamant refusal to do something so silly and stereotypical is admirable but… well, I'm not sure everyone who says they wouldn't play these parts would actually maintain their principles when faced with a real paycheck.

I'm not judging it. If you gotta eat, you gotta eat. At the same time, I agree with Chuck D. and the rest of the rappers in the song when, at the end, they go to the movies and find that the feature film is Driving Miss Daisy. I wouldn't want to watch that either. I'm guessing they wouldn't have liked Soul Plane back then either (wink). Also, I know what you're thinking, and the answer is, "Yes, this song was released long before Ice Cube starred in Are We There Yet."

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